Vv Magazine‘s Graham Slaughter goes on a whirlwind tour of Toronto’s best cheese caves, accompanied by “Canada’s Big Cheese” Kevin Durkee.
For many, cheese is a little luxury. Served on wooden planks alongside crisps, compote and salty charcuterie, a fromage trio can jump-start a party or gently wrap-up an eight-course meal. Simply put, cheese is often considered a frill, an unexpected side-kick — but rarely the main event.
But for a select few, cheese is a lifestyle. It comes with its own language, science, culture and centuries of heritage. Rather than tucking a wedge of brie in the fridge between the margarine and jam, these turophiles place cheese on a pedestal.
Kevin Durkee falls in the latter camp.
Known to many as “Canada’s Big Cheese,” Durkee is the chef and owner of CHEESEWERKS, a downtown restaurant 100% dedicated to Cheese, comfort food, cheese fondue and everything Canadian. He’s what you might call a cheese geek. Durkee left a happy corporate job to build his own cheese empire, and he’s often plucked as a judge for cheese competitions. He’s even the chair of an industry cheese club — kind of like a networking book club, but for (you guessed it) cheese.
So, when Vv Magazine began researching Toronto’s finest cheese caves, it only made sense to invite Kevin along as our curd-loving spirit guide.
A cheese cave is often a small, temperature-controlled space where an affineur (a person who modifies cheese through the art of aging) profiles a variety of cheeses that he or she hopes to perfect through time. Depending on the cheese, this can add saltiness, mould or radically new textures.
And so, on a beautiful summer afternoon, Vv Magazine hit the road with Kevin “Big Cheese” Durkee to go spelunking through our local cheese caves. What we discovered were three radically different approaches to the fine art of the affineur.
THE MAD SCIENTIST AT CHEESE BOUTIQUE
Sidled on the edge of Etobicoke, the Cheese Boutique is home to a legacy in Toronto cheese. Started in 1970, the 10,000-square-foot store showcases all sorts of gourmet spreads, crackers, meats and about 500 varieties of cheese, about half of which hail from Canada.
Those cheeses are the curatorial work of Afrim Pristine, who, at the ripe age of 32, became Canada’s sixth maître fromager, an honorary title from the France-based Guilde Internationale des Fromagers. He’s a man who pronounces gouda as “gow-da” and reminisces on the years in his early twenties he spent travelling across Europe milking cows and learning the age-old art of fermentation.
Cheese Boutique is technically home to three caves, but only one is open to the public. Kept at a nippy 4 to 8 degrees Celsius, the dimly-lit vault houses 6-foot-long tubes of provolone, moulding blues and tire-sized wheels Parmigiano-Reggiano.
“I call this a living museum,” Pristine says. “I want people to come in here. Maybe watching cheese age is boring, but there’s a point to it. Much like aging wine, cheese needs time to evolve.”
And people are coming in droves.
“We’ve never sold more cheese than in this last year. I’m never ordering as much cheese as I am now,” he says. “Fifteen years ago I couldn’t talk like this. It was cheddar and Oka … the mouldier cheeses that I couldn’t sell 10 years ago, I was tossing. Now people want the mouldiest stuff I’ve got.”
Pristine has made a name for himself in cheese circles as a bit of a meddler. He’s known for buying world-class cheeses, putting them through his own unique aging process and selling them under a new name. For some, this is a bold move — rural cheese makers do all the hard labour and some guy in Toronto swoops in with his own vision.
Knowing this, Kevin puts Pristine on the spot.
Kevin Durkee: “You’ve built a reputation for taking great Canadian cheese and maybe pushing it or aging it or doing your own thing to it. Are you making the cheese better than what the cheese maker started with?”
Afrim Pristine: “A cheese maker’s job is to make a cheese. It’s not to age it. A dairy farmer’s job is to get a cheese maker good milk. A cheese maker’s job is to take that great quality milk and make a fantastic product. My job is to take that product and put it on a pedestal and show it respect. And I think this room is doing that. Every step is very important. I’m not trying to alter the cheese and make it something completely different.”
Durkee: “You do though!”
Pristine: “Yes, yes.”
Durkee: “I’m not trying to be adversarial, but someone may select something here that may be completely different than what they’re picking up in St. Lawrence Market.”
Pristine: “Are we talking strictly Canadian?”
Durkee: “I think more of those questions are coming from Canadian cheese producers. Because you’re right, there are centuries of history. In Canada, I don’t know anyone else who is really adding value into the chain before selling to the consumer.”
Pristine: “Let’s talk about Lankaaster from Glengarry, because it won the award [Global Supreme Champion at the 2013 Global Cheese Awards.] I love what they do, I love Margaret Peters [the owner] and I think she’s one of the hardest working people I’ve met in my life.
I have 15 or 16 blocks and other 15 or 16 [in a cheese cave] across the street, all on rotation. I’m selling about a 16-month-old Lankaaster. but I can’t call Glengarry and say, ‘Send me 16-month-old Lankaaster.’ They’ll be like, ‘Afrim, you’re insane.’
Am I completely changing it? Kind of. But I think a lot of it is their intention.”
Durkee: “Is Margaret supportive of what you do?”
Pristine: “Incredibly. And has been since day one.”
Durkee: “Are there people who say Afrim, just sell it as I gave it?”
Pristine: Honestly, no. Because I buy the cheese and my money is very good. And at that point, the cheese is mine. So technically, I can flush it down the toilet if I want to.
Durkee: Are you changing names or styles if you want to?
Pristine: Well, it depends. If it’s my cheese — certain cheese makers make cheese for me, which is my recipe. This [he points to a wheel on a shelf behind him] nowhere else in the world has this. I got 20 wheels made for me. I got the mould made for me in England, shipped it to Holland. This is from one of the dairies I worked at.
This is my cheese. I can call it Stupid Idiot Cheese if I want to because now it’s mine. But if I’m aging Lankaaster for 16 months, I’m not changing that. I don’t want to.”
And Pristine’s creations are worth noting. He brings out a sample of Rebel Yell, a Niagara Gold cheese that he washed twice a day for 60 days in a Sam Adams IPA. It’s wonderfully sharp and balanced with a hint of beer.
With Pristine’s vast knowledge of cheese, why not let him do a bit of doctoring?
THE GLASS FROMAGERIE AT TOCA
Next up is TOCA, the Ritz-Carlton’s Italian-inspired restaurant in downtown Toronto. After ascending a wrap-around staircase, restaurant goers quickly spot the glassed-in cheese cave. While the Cheese Boutique offers organized chaos, TOCA curates its cheese like a modern gallery — simple, clean and elegant. About 18 cheeses — 50 per cent Canadian, 50 per cent international — rest on wooden shelves, organized by their quality. It’s the only hotel cheese cave in Canada, according to chef Jitin Gaba.
Gaba, who joined TOCA by way of Australia, explains how far the cave has come in the last four years. He admits that it began as a bit of a showhorse; the cave’s climate control was initially compromised thanks to a crack between the glass doors.
“Whoever planned it, they didn’t plan it in terms of a functional cheese cave, it was more for show,” Gaba said.
They’ve since added a humidifier and rejigged the air conditioning system, keeping the little glass cube between 12 to 14 degrees Celsius. They’ve also tailored the way they select cheeses, looking for those “that have a story to tell,” Gaba says.
“Honestly, I really like this goat gouda. I tried it a few months ago and right away got it [for the cave]. The last piece I had, it was amazing. After three months it’s a little softer and the saltiness was just amazing … I think any less than three months it doesn’t have the same kind of character.”
While the restaurant doesn’t have an affineur of the same global prestige as Cheese Boutique’s Afrim Pristine, Gaba has been taking cheese courses at George Brown in hopes of better serving guests.
Still thinking about the Frankensteined creations of Cheese Boutique, Kevin Durkee has to ask: Does a cheese taste better as-is or after a couple months in the cave?
“Obviously, the producer is proud of what they’re putting on the the plate,” Gaba says. “When I go to school and I try a heavenly Cheddar that’s six months old and I have a cheese from my cave that’s two years, I can taste the difference. But I’m from culinary. For a normal guest, they don’t understand the difference unless you put the [cheeses] beside each other and let them try.”
Which TOCA does. The restaurant offers a cheese-tasting menu and sometimes invites guests inside the cave to get a glimpse of the aging in action. Sometimes, they even get raided.
“We started putting a show plate in here when we started doing Sunday brunch, so people thought it was complimentary and they started demolishing all the cheese,” Gaba says with a laugh. Fortunately, they keep about 12 cheeses in the kitchen, too.
And while the cave is only a few years old, Gaba hopes that TOCA will continue to gain a reputation for their cave-aged cheeses.
“We’re on the right track,” he says.
A BRAVE NEW CURD AT PANGAEA
In a seemingly drab board room atop Pangaea, the Yorkville restaurant known for its global approach to cuisine, hunks of fresh emmental sit in clear plastic bins. It’s one of 12 kinds of in-house cheese made by chef and co-owner Martin Kouprie, who has only been making cheese for about a year.
“Everything is made and aged on the premise,” Kouprie says. The approach isn’t new for Pangaea, which makes its butter, ice cream, pasta and even pickled ginger in house.
Each cheese is cheekily named after a Toronto neighbourhood. The Annex is a camembert, Moss Park is a ripe Stilton-style cheese, and Rosedale is a cambozola because it’s “extremely rich with a blue vein,” Kouprie says with the subtlest smirk.
The cheese cave lives downstairs, in the kitchen, and unlike Toronto’s other two caves, it’s not big enough for humans to fit inside. In fact, it’s more of a cheese fridge. However, it’s under the same strict climate control as any cheese cave, kept at a Goldilocks level between 10 and 12 degrees Celsius.
“This is at 97% humidity right now, because I have some new camemberts in there,” says Kouprie, pulling open the door to inspect his ripening molds.
For Kouprie, the process remains experimental. He learned how to make cheese through reading and research, and he built his own cheese press by hand. When he cuts through a layer of ash to the Valencay-style Portlands cheese, it reveals an oozy slip — a wet edge around the cheese that would knock him down a few pegs in a cheese competition.
That said, it’s still delicious. Soft and buttery, the cheese has a briny, sharp palate with a smooth finish. It’s offered alongside others on a tasting menu: three cheeses for $19 or six for $36.
So what’s the next step for Kouprie’s cheese? Mastering parmesan, or Palmerston, as he calls it.
“I look at the rind development. I don’t want to see any spots like this,” he says, holding up a piece. “This tells me I didn’t clean out the box quick enough. It’s all about husbandry, wiping out the containers every day.”
Always with the tough questions, Kevin jumps in: For Pangaea, is cheese-making just about doing something different in the restaurant world, or is this one of the chef’s true passions?
“It’s all the above. One, you’ve got to keep learning. Two, you’ve got to keep teaching and three, you’ve gotta differentiate yourself from others. Its a win-win all around,” Kouprie says.
Something tell me he’ll figure out the Palmerston in no time.
Love cheese and want to discover more?
You too can get up close and personal with cheese either in the county or in the city. The Culinary Adventure Company has a few upcoming tours where you can uncover local food artisans, cheese makers, cheese mongers and chefs in the city who are creating and serving incredible artisan cheese. Or, if you prefer to head out of the city, jump on the bus with them to visit and enjoy cheese from three cheese factories, shop at an iconic farmers market, discover a local honey farm, raise a glass of craft apple cider, plus much more while enjoying breakfast and lunch at signature FEAST ON restaurants. Sounds like a perfectly ooey gooey day!
Interested? For our avid Vv Magazine readers, the first 25 people to sign up for either a COUNTY MOUSE or CITY MOUSE Culinary Adventure and use promo code BIGCHEESE25 will save 25% OFF their ticket price.
What do you think of these Toronto cheese caves? Let Vv Magazine know in the comments below, or tweet us @ViewtheVibe.